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1,825 days of lost opportunities: post-Katrina reflections

August 30, 2010

By Robert Mittelstaedt

It has been five years since I tried to talk my mother into leaving New Orleans as Katrina approached. She would not leave because her aunt would not leave. Then, she moved into the assisted living center to help her aunt.

They stayed in New Orleans, safe but very uncomfortable, until three days after Katrina. Four months later, 108-year-old Aunt Nettie died. She had been declining, but the end was accelerated by the long bus ride out of New Orleans, an evacuation from Lake Charles with Hurricane Rita, a move to a north Louisiana nursing home, and finally, a move to a nursing home in Jackson, Mississippi.

My brother sent his family north and stayed through Katrina, not because he was trying to “ride it out,” but because of his job at Children’s Hospital. In the absence of government help, it took the team at the hospital a number of days to arrange for private helicopter transport to get critically ill kids out of town. He was still at work while his home in Lakeview was soaking in 9 feet of water.

Mother moved back into her un-flooded home in Metairie, and my brother and his family moved in to share her 1,500-square-foot house for the next nine months. Mother was diagnosed with cancer, received inadequate care in post-Katrina New Orleans, and died 17 months after the storm.

While sad, this story is not as bad as many we have heard. There were/are a couple of million others along the Gulf affected by Katrina who got up every morning thinking about what they would try to accomplish that day, basics like: 

Survival: Can we get water and food? How will we pay for it?
Shelter: Where will we live? Can we fix the house? Who will do it?
Employment: Is my job still there, or can I get one?
Function: Working seven days a week for two years was common for those in health care.
Family: Who will or can come back?
Education: Where will the kids go to school?
Recovery: Will the government work it out?

With those kinds of serious daily challenges, you can understand there was not a ground swell of civic involvement in seeing Katrina as an opportunity to design the future of New Orleans. A colleague and I, both of whom had lived in New Orleans when we were younger, wrote a newspaper editorial shortly after Katrina, suggesting there was a unique opportunity to create a New Orleans that would become internationally acclaimed as an example of innovation and creativity arising out of adversity.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a better life for New Orleans – the public, those who were left, rose up and demanded that they wanted it just like it used to be. Elected officials caved in to sentiment and tried to help everyone “go home” – to rebuild the houses they grew up in or that their mothers grew up in on a piece of land below sea level.

I was not surprised. New Orleans has always been about the good old days. It seems to have more of the “it’s-always-been-like-this-and-we-like-it” attitude than any other place I have lived.

Respecting and preserving history and culture is important, but if you have moved a few times in your life, you eventually find out that it is the bond with family and friends that is important, not the house you grew up in. On the other hand, if you have had no or poor education and limited opportunities, then all you know is where you grew up.

My brother was lucky compared to others – he got something for selling his flooded house to a speculator who was sure people would come back, and there would be a housing shortage. Five years later, there are only a couple of occupied houses on the block.

The 2010 census will likely show that 30 percent of pre-Katrina residents have not returned. The regional population probably hasn’t changed a lot, but remember that New Orleans’ population peaked in 1965 and has been declining ever since.

Doing something bold for the future of New Orleans would have attracted global attention. Trying to find ways to live in the past means that New Orleans has a very limited future. It is now a city supported by the port, which is functioning; tourism, which is doing well; and some oil industry support activity.

The good news is the ineffective school system is largely wiped out. Independent charter schools have seized the opportunity and are making headway. The Corps of Engineers is constructing stronger levees to prevent the type of flooding that took place. Next year, work will start to elevate the drainage pumps and pump houses for operators so they can operate in extreme conditions.

Community groups, outsiders and young people who love the challenge of helping to rebuild the city are trying to help. Tulane University, my alma mater, has been deeply involved and reports record applications. But all you see are small pockets of success.

The bad news is that significant-sized businesses are not coming back. The topography, safety, corruption, poor public education and historic anti-business attitudes have been driving the business base away for the last 50 years. Without larger businesses there will be slow or no growth.

No business person in his or her right mind would locate a facility and people in “the soup bowl” if they don’t absolutely have to be there. New Orleans will never again be as big as it was on the basis of the port and tourism alone.

Katrina presented New Orleans, its leaders and citizens an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past with a bold new beginning. That opportunity was rejected by culture and impeded by government incompetence at all levels.

Instead of creating and helping others build a vision, local leaders bought into the “I-want-my-house-back” mindset. That turned off national audiences as quick as a light switch because everyone outside New Orleans understood that it was politics, not a strategy.

Government should do for people what they cannot do for themselves. Leaders should help others envision a future beyond their narrow experience. Neither of these things happened.

My heart aches for south Louisiana. My wife and I grew up there and love many things about the place. We still tear up at news stories that relive Katrina, as the HBO series “Treme” told the fictional, but believable stories about the aftermath. We cannot escape thoughts about what our, and so many other, families went through that has left scars and sadness.

The cycle of life goes on. Mother is gone, but we have more wonderful grandchildren. We endure great sadness and revel in great joy, but we don’t stay the same.

The sadness of Katrina and New Orleans has not been tempered by the joy of recovery with a new and promising vision for the future. That is a failure of leadership and an unforgivable missed opportunity.


Mittelstaedt is the dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business.